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Monday 22 Jul 2024

Chose Your Insult Well
David Simmonds

Roseanne Barr got herself and her top ranked television show axed, recently. She described a former staffer, in the Barack Obama White House, as the product of the “Muslim brotherhood and planet of the apes.” The staffer targeted was Valerie Jarrett, the former Assistant to President Obama for public engagement and inter-governmental affairs.

Poor grammar, poor thinking.

Although her grammar left fell somewhat short of correct, the comparison made by Barr left so much to be desired that the reaction was swift and merciless. To compare someone to an ape, even as just one half of a mating pair, is beyond the pale. Poor grammar reflects poor thinking, a wise person once said.

What of Donald Trump and his complaint that believes a columnist characterised him as “some kind of Neanderthal.” That used to be an insult. The Oxford Dictionary defines that description as referring to someone who is “uncivilized, unintelligent or uncouth.”

The definition no longer stands up to modern science. Genetic research has shown that we all carry between 1.5% and 2.1% Neanderthal DNA, meaning that modern humans and Neanderthals have a common ancestor, yet identified. We are thus all Neanderthals and writing that someone is a Neanderthal is the same as writing that she or he is a human.

Now, investigators are digging up evidence to indicate Neanderthals were more sophisticated than imagined. They have uncovered a series of paintings, from three caves in Spain, that date, using uranium-thorium technology, to 64,000 years ago, give or take. That predates the arrival of Homo sapiens sapiens in Europe by 20,000 years.

The paintings, black and red images of animals, as well as dots, hand stencils and fingerprints, demonstrate Neanderthal capacity for abstract thought and descriptive skill. The lead investigator, of this study, says, “The findings point to further parallels between modern humans and Neanderthals”: both species “shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable.”

Neanderthals died out.

So far, we are the evolutionary winners; of course, we might experience untimely extinction from our own brilliance. One recently touted explanation for our success is a vertical forehead with more prominent eyebrows than the Neanderthal, which increases our capacity to express subtle emotions. In other words, humans have a larger neo-cortex than did Neanderthals.

Groucho Marx would be pleased. In sum, Trump and his detractor dodged a bullet. Neanderthals came up smelling as roses.

It’s not as though Trump has a paucity of detractors. He has been called a “”moron,” “dumb,” “crazy,” “stupid,” an “idiot” and a “dope” by people that work for and around him. Maybe we should examine the insult a little more carefully, since the present occupant of the White House seems to generate such a generous flow of it.

The insult normally has two components: first, the person tarnished, that is Donald J Trump; second, the person, place, thing or condition to with which Trump is negatively compared, that is, a Neanderthal. Thus, when we insult by comparison, we are effectively spreading a double insult.

This suggests we ought to be careful. To call someone a jackass is probably just rubbing the male donkey lovers of the world the wrong way. Same if you call someone a pig or a rat or a worm; these words each have a number of redeeming features and potential defenders that can push back.

Even moving down the sentience scale has its risks. You might call someone as “thick as a plank,” but planks come from trees and trees may be “brilliant at solving problems related to their existence,” according to the author of a recent bestseller. Call someone “as dull as dishwater” and the next thing you know, a conservation group is trolling you.

Trouble also lurks with words that appear descriptive: words that may have their origin in comparison. Can you call someone a moron, for example, without risking criticism for lumping people, challenged mentally, together in a negative way; probably not, if the person to whom they are compared is Donald J Trump.

It’s hard to come up with a good insult that doesn’t besmirch innocent third parties. To keep our language lively, maybe we just have to run a risk and prepare to call Mr. Trump “dumb as a bag of hammers,” if that’s how we see it. Say it as you see it.

To insult or not to insult.

Of course, there is no rule of human discourse that says we have to resort to insult at all. Perhaps, it would be better if we stuck to challenging the substance of what people say and do with substance in return. Perhaps, also, Trump is on earth for testing our capacity to set the limit and test the limit.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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